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regular-article-logo Monday, 27 May 2024

Bring Bonnie home

Bonnie is a Meitei and her home, not too far away from the camp, falls in the periphery of a Kuki-dominated area. It is unsafe for her and thousands like her to go back there

Arghya Sengupta Published 15.05.24, 07:03 AM
A girl at a relief camp in Manipur.

A girl at a relief camp in Manipur. PTI picture.

At a relief camp in Nongada, Imphal East district, Manipur, little Bonnie (name changed) was asked to sing a song for the visiting members of the Supreme Court-appointed committee for relief and rehabilitation of internally displaced persons. Unlike many her age, she didn’t pick a popular Taylor Swift single or the latest Bollywood chartbuster. Instead, she sang a seitha esei (a lament song) about going back home. Eyes welling with tears, her voice choking up but still melodious, Bonnie’s lament would have moved even a person with a heart of stone. Looking around, I saw that those present, whether they understood the meaning of the words or not, were crying. I was no exception. At that moment, I realised what the actual price of a divided society is — the tears of a child unable to return home.

Bonnie is a Meitei and her home, not too far away from the camp, falls in the periphery of a Kuki-dominated area. It is unsafe for her and thousands like her to go back there. Their houses have been razed and some of them burnt to the ground. The same is true for Kukis who lived in the valley in Meitei-dominated regions. As another poster in a relief camp declared, it has been over a year and neither has there been any punishment for the perpetrators of the violence on both sides, nor have people been able to return home. The relief camp is now their prison; the seitha esei, their outlet.

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Having assisted the committee with some of its work, I had read the relevant documentation and gathered data on the ethnic conflict in Manipur. But the enormity of the tragedy and the task ahead for the administration became clear to me only after my visit. In the two relief camps which I visited, in Imphal East and Imphal West, two existing structures — a disused community health centre and an expo hall — had been repurposed to accommodate internally displaced persons. Scores of families now live, if they are lucky, in small rooms, otherwise in makeshift enclosures created from tarpaulin sheets or plywood separators.

The administration has provided health facilities, care for newborns, and sewing machines for the residents to restart their livelihoods. An open space in one camp was the anganwadi and nursery school with camp children spending a few hours there. A large room in another camp was the gym where, amongst other things, Zumba classes are held. Despite the adversity, the residents have made the most of a difficult situation. Some have opened shops within the camp; others like Bonnie have taken admission in a local private school. But each of them has a common refrain — they are happy with the arrangements the administration has made but want to go back home desperately.

At a swanky medical care centre nearby, I met Nilambar (name changed) who had left his job in Mumbai to return home to manage the centre. A few years earlier, the state had hosted the International Tourism Mart. It followed that up by hosting the Miss India competition. Things were looking rosy and many like Nilambar took the plunge and returned. But for all the development that took place, the possibility of divisiveness and violence was lurking underneath. The price of such divisiveness is always so high that all it takes is one incident to set the clock back by decades. This is because, as Shruti Kapila has evocatively written in Violent Fraternity, violence in India is always intimate — it is neighbours and brothers who usually fight and kill each other, from the Mahabharata to the partition of India. Any economic development is fragile unless it is built on a solid foundation of peace and harmony. The situation in Manipur is no exception.

With its sharp ethnic division combined with its small geographical size and limited availability of land, Manipur was always a powder keg. But as largescale violence in Gujarat, Dadri, Muzaffarnagar and, earlier, in Darjeeling, Assam and Punjab has shown, the country is a collection of powder kegs. The sparks that light them may vary — from an inflammatory speech by a politician to the thoughtless forwarding of a WhatsApp message by a trigger-happy uncle that vilifies another community or, as in the case of Manipur, a revolting and criminal act of parading two women naked and capturing their indignity in a video. Though these actions are at varying degrees of wrongness, at their core is one common element — a basic failure to treat another human being with the respect he/she deserves by virtue of being human. Bonnie cannot go to school today because her Kuki counterpart does not see her as a school-going child who wants an education but as a Meitei who has to be shown her place. The same is true for countless Kuki children, similarly homeless in different parts of the state. This basic disrespect has now boiled over and set Manipur back in a way that benefits no Kuki or Meitei.

As another general election cycle continues, most parties promise development, but calculate their chances based on the identity of people likely to vote for them. This is inevitable in a situation in which political parties are more often judged by the oratory of their national leaders or the identity of their local ones rather than on core ideological beliefs or policies. Despite this, there is a straight line that connects a party whose core ideology claims that India is the homeland for Hindus to one that campaigns against outsiders encroaching into their home state. These ideologies are like the permanently available matchsticks used by opportunistic politicians, criminal elements and lazy uncles to light a thousand different fires of various intensity in the country. Bonnie had to take shelter in a relief camp because one such fire burnt down her home. She continues to remain there, not because her neighbours might kill her but because their minds have been so corrupted by the inflammatory politics of hate that they are unable to see Bonnie for who she is — a girl who sings beautifully about her home, which is their home too.

Arghya Sengupta is Research Director, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal

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